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Families keep their guard up


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2003

BRANDON -- In recent weeks, Darla's telephone conversations with her husband, Mike, have ended with the same warning.

"He tells me not to go to the mall or to downtown Tampa," said Darla, whose husband is a U.S. Marine master sergeant stationed at Central Command's post in Qatar. "And I tell him to keep his gas mask close."

The war with Iraq is a two-front war, the U.S. government has warned, with the prospect that the home front also could become a battlefield.

Some Tampa Bay residents, military families in particular, think their proximity to MacDill Air Force Base makes their neighborhoods as vulnerable to terrorism as the boroughs of New York City or the landmarks of Washington, D.C.

"If you were a terrorist, where would you attack?" Darla asked Friday from the MacDill Family Resource Center in Brandon, where she watched live CNN coverage of the war. She did not give her last name for military security reasons.

"Would you go after the troops scattered all over, or would you go after Central Command and all the families?" she said.

Military spouses such as Darla see potential for dangerous tampering all around them: from BayWalk in St. Petersburg and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa to the heavily traveled Port of Tampa.

The most obvious target, some say, is the area around MacDill Air Force Base -- home to Central Command, which is overseeing the invasion of Iraq.

MacDill, on a peninsula that overlooks downtown Tampa, houses Air Force troops as well as dozens of other organizations, including Army, Navy and Marine personnel and, in recent months, National Guard troops.

"Oh, yes, (MacDill) would be the prime target for terrorists," said Florida Atlantic University professor Walid Phares, a nationally recognized expert on the Middle East who appears regularly on CNN and MSNBC. Phares said that "after the shelling of Baghdad's command center (Friday), any al-Qaida or even Iraqi cells would be very interested in getting to our central command. Would they be successful? Maybe not. But would it be an intentional target? Yes, and a very important one."

The number of base personnel is estimated to be about 7,000, with two-thirds living about 20 miles away in the greater Brandon area. That connection has military family members living in areas including Valrico, Brandon and Riverview particularly uneasy.

"I'm not as worried about the port," said Darla, 38, who lives in Brandon with her three children, who range from preschool to high school age. "I worry about the base and the schools because these people, they would be sick enough to attack children."

Hillsborough County school district spokesman Mark Hart said there are more than 3,000 students in the system who come from active military families.

"And we know exactly which school each of them attends," he said. "We also know which schools are closest to the port and any other potentially hazardous area.

"It's definitely a two-front war, and that's why we've done so much training and preparation," he said.

Marc Lawson, 18, a senior in the Junior ROTC program at Bloomingdale High in Valrico, said you won't find him at a big sports event such as this weekend's NCAA games at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

"No way," he said. "They look for big groups like that."

Not everyone is skittish.

Michelle, a resident of FishHawk Ranch east of Brandon, isn't altering her lifestyle. She is raising her two children, 8-year-old Taylor and 6-year-old Torii, while her husband, Ray, a 15-year Marine, is deployed in Qatar.

"I feel really safe here, actually," said Michelle, whose husband left two months ago. "If I have something to do, I'm not going to let them win."

Frank Suitor, director of the MacDill Family Resource Center, said two mothers in recent weeks have expressed concerns about coming to the center's weekly toddler play group. Recent media attention on the off-base center in Brandon has them wondering whether it has become an obvious target.

"I told them, 'Yes, there probably is a higher risk,"' Suitor said. "But the reason terrorists do their job is to divert us and keep us from living our lives. We will not be part of that here. We will continue to do our work for military families."

Local officials say they have taken every measure to guard against attacks.

The Coast Guard has increased boat and helicopter patrols, keeping boaters from within 1,000 yards of MacDill; from within 100 yards of a docked cruise ship, liquified petroleum tanker or anhydrous ammonia tanker; and from within 100 feet of supports of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

The Coast Guard is putting extra armed sea marshals on cruise ships and some other vessels traveling between Tampa Bay ports and the gulf. Security officials said earlier this week that they worry terrorists could blow up a ship, blocking an important shipping channel or damaging the Skyway.

At the nuclear power facility in Crystal River, security has been tight since well before the conflict with Iraq, or even Sept. 11, said Progress Energy spokesman Mac Harris.

Visitors have long needed background checks to enter the facility, and existing intrusion alarms and armed security guards have been beefed up, Harris said.

"There has never been a specific threat to the Crystal River plant," he said. "And the risk to someone in Brandon if something happens here at our plant is very minimal, I would think. It's about 70 miles away from here."

Darla rationalizes, saying she knows "the odds of me getting in a car crash are a lot greater than a terrorist attack here."

But still, she worries.

"I just think they'll skip the bigger cities and go for smaller towns. Instead of killing thousands at once, they'll go for a few at a time."

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